"Nonessential travel." It's one of those phrases that fly by at Twitter speed. It's everywhere, this nonessential travel, a virtual pandemic in itself. The State Department advises against nonessential travel to Mexico and a few other countries. An EU commissioner, meanwhile, advises against nonessential travel to some parts of the U.S.
Yet no one actually defines nonessential travel, or its presumed opposite: essential travel. I called the State Department, and a spokesman told me it's "a personal decision" based on each traveler's "circumstances." In other words, nonessential travel is one of those terms that sound good, authoritative, but upon further inspection mean very little — or, more precisely, mean different things to different people.
For most of us, a trip to the beaches of Cancun sounds decidedly nonessential — but for a frazzled office worker, teetering on the verge of a breakdown, that same trip might be very essential indeed. And what about a group of human rights lawyers due to meet in Mexico City to discuss an important case? I suppose visiting a sick relative counts as essential travel, but it depends on the illness and — let's be honest here — the relative.
The fact that such a term even exists — nonessential travel — speaks volumes about how much the travel experience has evolved over the centuries. For most of human history, all travel was essential. You traveled to seek food, to find God, to fight a war, or flee one. It's no accident that the words travel and travail share a similar root. Travel was hard. You didn't do it to go sightseeing or chill out. It wasn't until 1841 when a Baptist minister named Thomas Cook arranged an 11-mile excursion in England that package tourism — and, yes, nonessential travel — were born.
Sometimes we can't distinguish essential from nonessential travel until after we're safely back home. The trip that seems crucial at the time might not in retrospect. Once I took an "essential" trip to Vietnam for a business meeting. We ate and drank fulsomely but, as far as I could tell, there was nothing essential about the meeting. Likewise, I can think of some trips that began frivolously, on a lark, but turned out to be surprisingly essential. The point is we're constantly revising our ranking of trips in terms of their importance, their essentialness.
I realize the officials at the State Department probably do not have author Henry Miller in mind when they issue these travel warnings. But maybe they should. Miller once said that, for him, the "destination was never a place but a new way of seeing things." And so it is with me. Travel — all travel — is essential. A good trip, even a bad one, salves my soul, fires my imagination. I could no longer live without travel than I could without, say, a really good cup of coffee. Not a matter of life or death exactly, but close. So, if the opportunity arises, yes, I will gladly hop on a plane for Mexico City. Of course I'd pack a generous supply of Tamiflu. Some things really are essential.
Eric Weiner, a former NPR reporter, is author of The Geography of Bliss, One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.